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The Constructive Side of Escapism

Essay

I’m not sure why I thought of Minecraft that night. I hadn’t played it in months. But as soon as the idea entered my head, it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to build a house.

It didn’t start well. Within forty-five minutes, I had deleted three singleplayer worlds, and in keeping with my month-long mood, I was telling myself that a house was a stupid idea to begin with. I didn’t know how to design a house. When playing with my friends, I was commonly the explorer, rather than the architect. I left buildings to people who could do something other than shoeboxes with roofs on top. Visual design has never been my strong suit.

I was on the verge of quitting. “Hang on,” I said to myself. “Don’t give up. Forget picket fences and vegetable gardens. If you could live anywhere, where would — “

The answer appeared immediately, as it has for twelve years: Tomahna. Atrus and Catherine’s home, from Myst III and IV.

The psychology behind my desire to build a house was no mystery to me. For the past month, I have been preoccupied with domestic things — too many bills, too little work, concerns about family, concerns about health, questions of kids and settling and future. I have had a lot on my plate this summer, and September has been the month it reached critical mass. Meetings, doctor’s appointments, stacks of paperwork. All of it important, and in need of steady attention. I spent most nights staring into the dark, working through the things I needed to do, the possible outcomes I might encounter, foolishly listening to the little demons that told me being short on work was because my work wasn’t any good to start with. I’d wake up in the morning tired and jittery, which is terrible fuel to run on. Writing was hard, and my ideas were flat. I felt like I was faking it. At the end of each day, I’d return to bed, where the demons were waiting, their theories confirmed.

Rinse, repeat.

But as soon as I thought of Tomahna, my mood changed, for the first time in weeks. I was focused. I was energized. The demons were gone. There was nothing but this little spark, growing steadily brighter. I had an idea, and it cut through everything else.

I wasn’t going to build Tomahna from scratch. That was more of a commitment than I was looking for, and copying someone else’s design wasn’t what I was after. I didn’t want to build Atrus’ house, I wanted to build my house. “What do you like about Tomahna?” I asked myself. “The interconnected buildings,” I replied. “Each room its own little pod, with bridges and paths in between. And I love how it’s built into the canyon, like it’s growing from it.”

That was enough to start with. I created a new world — large biomes instead of superflat, this time — and flew off in search of a canyon.

When you’re used to playing Minecraft in Survival mode, Creative mode feels like a spa day. Unlimited resources. Flight. The ability to turn off the rain. There are still monsters, yes, but you can float safely above their heads, hailing down arrows like an untouchable god. Normally, I prefer the challenge of Survival, but my brain needed something safe. No combat. No threats. Just quiet experimentation.

I lost myself in flying for a few minutes. Perhaps it was because I had the Journey soundtrack on, but swooshing around the landscape — chunky and unrealistic as it was — was unexpectedly calming. At last, I found the perfect spot — a set of cliffs, clustered around a spire with a relatively flat top and a waterfall trailing down its side. I flew around the edges, exploring. I abandoned the sheet of graph paper I had pulled out when I launched the game. I would work in harmony with the landscape, trying to change the natural shape as little as possible. I wanted to complement the land, not conquer it.

The mountain was too steep for stairs, but I continued to pull inspiration from the Myst games. A minecart system, reminiscent of the rail cars, would carry visitors up the slopes. “Yes!” I thought. “And what else? What else about those games did you love?” I closed my eyes and remembered. Dark wood and soft lights. Big windows. Domed ceilings. Artwork. Fountains. Explorer’s laboratories. Plants. Secret passages. Figuring out how to get to buildings I’d seen from far away. Learning about people by looking in drawers.

My partner came home a few hours later, and sat beside me. She watched me tear up a floor, put down stone brick instead of mossy stone, then tear it up again.

“Sorry,” I said. “This must be so boring.”

“No, no, I get it,” she said. “You’re playing Legos.”

I dug and stacked and tinkered, long past midnight. I switched over to the soundtracks from Myst and Riven, letting my memories of the music suggest new ideas. And for the first time in weeks, when I went to bed, I wasn’t caught in a loop of bank account scenarios and personal shortcomings. I was thinking about the library I would build the next day.

Escapism is often used as a dirty word, a slight against people perceived to be out of touch with reality. We encourage fantasy and imagination in kids, because kids lack the experience to face their problems. Adults aren’t supposed to need that stuff. We always face our problems, right? We always know exactly have to solve them. We always know exactly what we’re doing.

I had been facing my problems. Too much. I was freaking out about dropping the ball, or being caught off guard, and it was making me suck at everything. I had been facing my problems so intently that I didn’t have the brainspace to read books, or play games, or talk to my friends. And I wondered why I felt awful all the time, why my work felt hollow.

Everyone needs to escape sometimes. And yeah, spending a week up a mountain or on a beach somewhere is a solid reset, but there’s a reason why vacations are a rare, longed-for thing. Thankfully, we’ve got games, and books, and movies, and every other hobby you can think of, all there to shift your brain into a different groove, even if just for an evening, or an hour. We need that. It’s how we rest, and dream, and get new ideas. It doesn’t matter what you escape into. What matters is that you give yourself permission to let go once in a while, so long as you always come back.

The morning after that first night of building, I was a little less tired. I hadn’t slept great, but better than I had in a while. I sat down to work, and the sight of my inbox made my heart sink. I didn’t want to be back there. I wanted to be digging blocks. Except that I didn’t, not really. I didn’t want Minecraft, specifically, I wanted to feel the way I felt while I was playing Minecraft. I wanted to feel focused and flowing and alive. The idea of feeling that through my work was far more appealing than an imaginary house. Because I love my work, truly. There’s nothing I love more than creating things. It’s just been a while since I was reminded of that.

“Okay,” I said to myself. “So how can you do that? How can you get the feeling you had last night back into your work?”

I thought hard about the work I wanted to be doing, just as I had thought about what I liked about Tomahna. I thought about what I liked to write, and what I didn’t, and what kind of work I was hoping to get — not right away, perhaps, but down the road. I pushed aside my other concerns, because they were out of my control, and weren’t helping me do the things I wanted to do. So I wrote. I brainstormed, I researched, I sent out some good pitches. They would probably result in “no,” as it often is the case for us freelancers, but I had to try. After all, how would I have known that the mossy stone was best if I hadn’t tried a few other things, too?

I went back to building that night, a pattern I have continued for days now. There are tunnels in the mountain, leading to laboratories and chests full of interesting things. There are skylights and mosaics, and plans for a garden. I’m thinking of redoing the communal reading room. The lighting needs some work, too. And I think a classroom might be a good idea. I enjoyed discovering the classroom in Riven, and besides, my kids will need to be well educated, if they’re going to write Ages of their own.

It has still been a hard week. The worries continue to creep in, and there have been plenty of times when the refrain of oh god, I don’t know what I’m doing comes back strong. But when it does, I think about the home I’m building. I think about bookshelves and carpet. It’s a dangled carrot, but it’s not about about the game. It’s about my life, and what I want in it. My little make-believe world has given me a safe space to examine the things I care about most, through a different lens. It’s reminded me that if I just keep going, if I just push through this stupid month, if I just keep making stuff even when it’s hard, even when it doesn’t turn out right the first time — eventually things in the real world will make me feel the way that playing Minecraft has the last few days. Because it has before. And it will again.

But until then, I’ll be building a classroom. No, a guest room. An observatory. Yes! Yes. An observatory.

[Author's note: After I started writing this, and long after the minecart track was completed, I learned that this week marks the twentieth anniversary of Myst. That's weird, and I like it.]

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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